On the Shrink4Men Forum, there are several gentlemen in the process of ending relationships with abusive wives and girlfriends. Predictably, this has triggered their partners’ abandonment fears and control issues. Oftentimes, when an abusive personality senses they are losing their target/victim or that their target/victim is pulling away, they will make efforts to re-secure their victim’s attachment to them.
An abusive personality’s attempt to re-secure the relationship is sometimes referred to as a Hoover. It’s called a Hoover because, like the eponymous vacuum cleaner, the abusive personality tries to suck you back into the relationship.
The abusive person may or may not be conscious of what they’re doing. Essentially, a Hoover is just a behavior or series of behaviors that are employed to get you to re-engage and remain in the relationship. Sometimes, a Hoover is referred to as “relationship recycling,” which sounds a lot like something one does with aluminum cans. I prefer Hoover because it is more evocative.
An abusive personality cannot successfully Hoover you or get you to re-engage or recycle without your participation, which is why it’s important for you to recognize and understand what’s happening, why it’s happening, your buttons, desires, hopes, Achilles’ heels and fears. An effective Hoover plays on both your hopes and fears. When dealing with an abusive personality, your hopes and fears will become traps that ensnare you if you are not mindful of them.
- Are you afraid of being alone?
- Being replaced?
- Being perceived as a “failure” or “bad guy?”
- Losing your kids?
- Losing your assets?
- Are you afraid the pain of being without her will be worse than the pain of being with her?
- Do you love to be needed or need to be loved?
- Do you cling to the hope that if you can just find a way to reason with her she’ll change for the better?
- Do you worry she’ll meet another man and magically become a wonderful person?
- Do you fear that you’re really unlovable, not good enough, not enough of a “man” and that no one else would want you?
- Do you have a fear of loss and a need for approval?
You may not know what hopes and fears keep you in your abusive relationship, but odds are your abusive and/or personality-disordered partner does — either consciously or intuitively. In order to stay strong and not fall prey to a Hoover or series of Hoovers, you will need professional and/or peer support and you will also need to reality test your fears and hopes. Please note, when dealing with an abusive personality and/or a personality-disordered individual, any hopes you have for her and the relationship are probably better described as wishful thinking.
Even if you’ve been successfully Hoovered, please don’t give up on yourself. According to domestic violence lore and literature, it takes an abuse victim on average 7 attempts to end the relationship with their abuser.*
You are not powerless and you are stronger than you think. You don’t have to go back, but you will need to shore up your boundaries and weather your fears, self-doubts, wishful thinking and be able to identify different kinds of Hoovers as they occur.
Hoovers Come in a Wide Variety of Models to Meet All your Hopes and Fears
Hoovers aren’t all sugar and spice and everything nice. There are different kinds of Hoovers for all your different buttons. Abusers will frequently alternate between different kinds of Hoovers until you re-attach:
The FOG Hoover: Ahh, the sweet suckage of fear, obligation and guilt. The FOG Hoover is basically just emotional blackmail.
How can you do this to me? How can you even think of abandoning me and the kids? (Placing “me” before “the kids” is a deliberate grammatical error. It denotes who really comes first.) How will we live? You have no idea how hard it is for me. You think I’m a heartless, soulless monster, don’t you? You don’t love me. You never loved me. You promised me you’d love me forever. You made a commitment to me before God, our family and EVERYONE. How can you be so cold-hearted and mean?
If you have faulty beliefs about love relationships like, “I must always put my partner’s needs ahead of my own” or “It is my responsibility to make my partner happy,” you’re probably especially vulnerable to this kind of tactic.
The Psycho Hoover: The Psycho Hoover is the FOG Hoover on steroids. It includes threats of suicide and/or violence. Basically, the abuser is just escalating their guilt and/or intimidation tactics to keep you in the relationship.
The only healthy response to a suicide threat and/or attempt is to call 911. Same goes for violence or threats of violence directed toward you. No ifs, ands, or buts. 9-1-1.
If she really is suicidal (and that’s a big if), she needs to be hospitalized. If she’s just engaging in emotional manipulation and blackmail, then she still needs help and some real life consequences via the police and a trip to the ER for a psych evaluation.
The Concern Hoover: This Hoover employs tactics similar to those used by Concern Trolls on websites and forums. The goal of a Concern Troll and a Concern Hoover is to sow seeds of doubt, uncertainty, guilt, self-recrimination and fear, while claiming to have your best interests at heart. To people who don’t have an emotional stake, the Concern Hoover and Concern Troll come across as condescending and pathologizing.
I’m so worried about you. You’re not acting like yourself. You’re so angry all the time. I think you should see a doctor and be evaluated for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and start taking medication. I just want you to be happy. I just want you to be well. You’re talking to your friends again. They’re trying to break us up. They don’t have our best interests at heart. I think this has to do with your fucked up relationship with your mother. This isn’t how the man I know and love treats me. A good man would forgive me and do the right thing.
Of course, it doesn’t occur to the abusive personality that the reason you’re not yourself or that you’re depressed, anxious and angry is because of their abuse. They’re blameless and you’re the one who needs serious psychological help, which may very well be true, but not for the reasons the abuser thinks.
Oh, and by the way, what an abusive person means when they say, “You’ve changed” is, “You’re not letting me get away with my usual behavior.” When they say, “You need to go to therapy and get help,” it means, “You need to quit holding me accountable and go back to the way you were before, even if it means taking medication you don’t need and become a psychopharmacological zombie.”
Markos Moulitas of the Daily Kos describes Concern Trolling as “offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice to political opponents that, if taken, would harm the recipient.” The same can be said of Concern Hoovering; offering a poisoned apple in the form of advice, concern or love to a partner or ex that, if taken would harm the recipient. Don’t bite on it.
The Any-Pain-You-Can-Feel-I-Can-Feel-Worse-I-Can-Feel-Any-Pain-Far-Worse-Than-You Hoover: She hurts more. She feels more. Her pain is real; you’re just too sensitive. Any pleas to respect and acknowledge your hurt feelings and pain (especially if they’re the direct result of her actions) will be minimized and ignored.
Why don’t you think of anyone beside yourself? You never think about how your actions impact others. You have no idea how much I hurt and how hard I’m trying. I know I get angry, but you have no idea how hard you are to live with.
Asking your abuser to have empathy for your feelings is almost always an exercise in futility. If she cared about your feelings even half as much as she cares about her own, she would not treat you the way that she does.
The I’ve Never Been Happier Hoover: This Hoover is basically a form of reverse psychology in which the abuser assumes, rightly or wrongly, that your abandonment fears are equal to or greater than her own.
I haven’t been this happy in years since you left. You always brought out the worst in me. I never behaved that way with anyone else. I started dating again and am being treated the way I always wanted to be treated. You have no idea how to treat a woman.
The purpose of this Hoover is to get you to begin to doubt your experiences, feelings and memories of her and the relationship. This kind of Hoover can lead you to wonder, “What if I’d said or done x instead of y? Maybe it really is me? Maybe I should give her another chance? What if she really is wonderful with the new guy? Why wasn’t she that way than me? I wonder if she’ll take me back if I promise to try harder to make her happy?”
You’re hurting and grieving the loss of the relationship and she’s acting as if she’s magically transformed into a brand new woman without a care in the world with her pick of suitors. Newsflash: Someone who is really happy with their new life or relationship doesn’t contact their ex to rub his or her nose in it.
The Deluxe Hoover: This is the Hoover in which she morphs from abuser to super sweet, sexed up, Stepford wife. In reality, it’s nothing more than a return to the honeymoon and/or love bombing stage of the relationship. In other words, she turns on the charm or whatever it was about her that attracted you to her in the first place. It can have the effect of resurrecting your hopes that the woman you fell in love with is real and that maybe, just maybe, you can go back to the way things were “before.”
I promise things will get better. I love you SO much. We were great together at first. We can get that back! Please just give us another chance! Remember the good times (or time)? Don’t you want to have that again? We’ll both go to therapy. We’ll make it work.
More often than not, the abusive behaviors resurface once you return.
The Happy Ending Hoover: In this Hoover, the abuser takes you to the Boom Boom room and tries to sex you back into submission. Just remember, orgasms only last a few seconds, or minutes if you’re lucky. Crazy and abusive is typically forever.
Breaking the Trance
It’s not uncommon for men and women who are victims of emotional and physical abuse to go into a kind of trance state when their partners begin an abusive episode. It’s a form of dissociation, which serves as a self-defense mechanism. You go someplace else in your mind while she’s twisting the screws. This is why you might have difficulty remembering things she says and does during a verbal tirade or physical attack.
It’s also possible to fall into a trance-like state, i.e., shut off your conscious brain, when being emotionally blackmailed and/or manipulated and revert to conditioned behavior. For example, you do whatever you have to do to pacify, mollify or please her in order to get her to stop and to get the pain and discomfort you’re feeling to stop. This is a mistake. It’s a temporary solution to what is more than likely a very long-term problem.
Reverting to your conditioned response to her abuse only serves to reinforce her abusive behaviors. For example, participating in a Hoover and returning to the relationship teaches her that all she has to do is x, y or z and you’ll scamper back. Her promises to change are meaningless. Why should she get help and change if there are no consequences for her abusive behavior?
Additionally, you are only learning and reinforcing your own unhealthy behaviors. For example, Nick the Knight breaks up with Abusive Allie, which triggers Abusive Allie’s abandonment and control issues. Abusive Allie begs, pleads, and love bombs Nick the Knight. Nick the Knight returns and things are good. Abusive Allie resumes her abusive and crazy-making behaviors. Nick the Knight threatens to leave again because he learned from the first break-up/Hoover that Abusive Allie will treat him better, at least for a little while, when he makes noises about being unhappy and ending the relationship.
It then becomes a cyclical dance between the two partners. An extremely unhealthy dance. Trust me, you do not want to get stuck in one of these dysfunctional do si do’s.
Therefore, you need to develop an awareness of your psychological Achilles’ heel, strengthen your boundaries, get some emotional support and find a way to break the trance of abuse and manipulation.
True Life Example
A Shrink4Men Forum member is in the very early stages of his divorce from an abusive and highly likely personality-disordered wife. Once he worked up the courage to move out, his wife turned on the Hoover. She started with a Concern Hoover. When that didn’t work, she turned on the Any-Pain-You-Can-Feel-I-Can-Feel-Worse-I-Can-Feel-Any-Pain-Far-Worse-Than-You Hoover, followed by another Concern Hoover, then a Deluxe Hoover and finally the FOG Hoover.
It has been torture for this gentleman, but he is holding strong. His relationship with his wife is, in many ways, a replay of his family of origin issues, which makes the Hoovering all the more painful and insidious.
Music plays a big part in this man’s life. Instead of going into the trance when his wife initiates a Hoover, I encouraged him to play a song in his head in order to break the spell. I suggested the Commodore’s Brick House, but with a few minor changes.
She’s a brick—-WALL
You talkie talkie
but it makes no difference at all!
She’s a brick—-WALL
The lady’s whacked and that’s a fact,
ain’t holding nothing back.
She’s a brick—-WALL
She’s the one, the only one,
who let a horse crap in our john**
Can’t take it no more heaven knows,
and here’s how the story goes.
She knows she got everything
a woman needs to mess with a man, yeah.
How can she use, the things she use
projection & gaslightin’, what a winning hand!
The name calling, her nasty ways,
make an old man wish for the end of his days
She knows she’s right and knows how to destroy self-esteem
Sure enough to knock a man to his knees
Movin’ out, movin’, movin’ out now (repeat)
Rogers & Hammerstein I’m not, but you get the idea. Find something that works for you, whether it’s calling a friend, going for a jog, banging on a drum set, chopping wood — whatever helps you to snap out of it.
It is not your fault you’re being abused. However, if you want things to change, you’ll need to take responsibility for your own health and happiness, face your fears and make different choices. In order for you to heal, you must resist the Hoover, no matter how good and/or bad it makes you feel.
* I looked for the original and, one hopes, peer-reviewed source for this statistic, but most women’s DV organization websites don’t offer citations for their statistics and claims. If anyone knows the original source, please post it below.
** The forum member’s wife is one of the out-of-control animal rescue types. She actually brought a small horse into their master bathroom in order to bathe it. Why? Because it was “too cold” in the barn. The horse emptied its bowels all over the place. I’ve seen the pictures.
Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD helps individuals work through their relationship and codependency issues via telephone or Skype. She specializes in helping men and women trying to break free of an abusive relationship, cope with the stress of an abusive relationship or heal from an abusive relationship. Coaching individuals through high-conflict divorce and custody cases is also an area of expertise. She combines practical advice, emotional support and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Schedule a Session page for more information.
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